The City Fathers Loudly Lauded
Hook-filled melodies. Danceable rhythms. Geometric guitars. Young British band with assloads of promise. Is this all starting to sound far too familiar?
Ah, but throw in expansive, arms-wide drum patterns; prog-rock dynamics; densely poetic lyrics filled with literate imagery; art rock fancies leaning self-assured against pop tendencies; post-rock shaking hands with post-punk. What’s this? An indie band that draws the standard Gang of Four dance-punk comparison, sounding like Bloc Party contemporaries, but somehow managing to also evoke specters of Fugazi and Tortoise, and even then shades of A Perfect Circle, Rush, and, dare it even be said, Jethro Tull?
In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves: “Whoa.”
Emerging from Bristol, England, the Playwrights are poised to build a bridge from 21st century post-punk revival to the British rock that followed in the ‘90s, reminding audiences that there was more to the ‘80s than Talking Heads emulation. The Playwrights point listeners towards bands like New Model Army instead, at the same time incorporating elements of artists as diverse as Manic Street Preachers, Nick Drake, and even Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine—often within the space of the same song. This is genre-less rock music employing a broad canvas and a diverse palette, though sounding quintessentially English, as the erstwhile Indie MP3 blog pointed out. As likely to suddenly downshift into pastoral contemplation as it is to be tense and driving, English Self Storage is in some sense a piecemeal approach to British rock music, yet sounds impossibly controlled and well-integrated.
Formed around the long-standing working partnership of Aaron Dewey and Benjamin Shillabeer, the Playwrights have been slowly building a reputation for themselves at home and abroad on the strength of some well-received singles, including “Television in Other Cities” and “Guy Debord Is Really Dead”, generating grassroots buzz with each step. Releasing singles and a self-produced debut album, Good Beneath the Radar, on Shillabeer’s lauded Sink & Stove label (home to Morning Star, Gravenhurst, The Organ, and Controller.Controller), the Playwrights haven’t exploded into the British national consciousness yet in any way comparable to Kaiser Chiefs or Arctic Monkeys, but it may only be a matter of time before the NME hype machine turns away from Sheffield and lands on Bristol. Having toured with the National and Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Playwrights have made the right moves to position themselves in the public eye, and the release of this mini-album seems to be the next step in solidifying a growing fan base.
Regardless of ensuing fame or the lack thereof, the Playwrights have much to be proud of in English Self Storage. While the revived track “Dislocated”—a previously released single and here re-recorded in a “(London Version)”—ties the Playwrights firmly to the oh-so-popular current trend of post-punk revivalism, tracks like “Why We’ve Become Invisible” and “Fear of Open Spaces” range beyond the usual musical tropes of this style to deliver a far more unique sound. The former is a compressed stream of broken countryside images delivered in a litany rant that adds a propulsive rhythm to the already steady beat, catching you up in swiftly rushing current. “Fear of Open Spaces” continues the stream of consciousness images, but marries them to a strangely Tool-like rhythmic pattern, with a rock chorus and a prog-ish bridge. The shifting melodies and structures of the song give it a jumpy energy that feels manic and propulsive, and in the space of those first two tracks you become sucked into a swirling vortex of multi-layered melody that is the Playwrights’ greatest strength.
The obvious single of “Dislocated” is followed by “Central Heating in the Summer Season”, which continues the razor-sharp tension with a double-time marching beat and shrill, messy guitar lines, and the song proceeds on apace until, at the two-minute mark, it suddenly breaks into a lilting flute line than blurs into what might be a flugelhorn, shifting the song into a jarring moment of folk reflection (and engendering the earlier and perhaps undeserved Jethro Tull comparison). It’s fleeting, as the song slips back into paranoid tension immediately, made yet more menacing by a rumbling bass line, and that transition makes the flute-horn break seem less reassuring and more disturbing.
That kind of shifting persists throughout English Self Storage, keeping the listener slightly unbalanced, unsure of one’s footing. To lump this in with dance-punk is a serious mistake, as there’s never enough consistency to shuffle and shimmy to, and this ain’t nobody’s idea of disco. The brilliant “Movement Towards a Paperless Life” proves that point handily. With no lead in, the song bursts into a wired, nearly spoken-word sludge of brows-furrowed aggression as the song chronicles the complaints of a young and failing office automaton. The song escalates into a falsetto chorus, collapses back down into a desperate rant given an added edge of stress with the introduction of a whining theremin, and then descends into a dark and eerie spoken protest against the alienation of technology. The whole thing peaks into fevered desperation and then is carried out on the spare notes of a lonely cello-piano pairing. And yet, while that kind of dark mood persists throughout the disc, gentle melodic shifts keep pulling the songs back to a pop thread, so that when “Leave It for the Archaeologists”—a short instrumental composed of plucked acoustic guitars and bowed cello—enters the picture, it doesn’t feel out of place at all; it’s merely a pause for a more introspective moment.
If there’s a general criticism to be made about these songs, it’s that the density of the lyrics and the complexity of the imagery is often at odds with the vocal melodies. Dewey continually pushes his words into notes and gaps in notes with reckless, gushing abandon. Much of the lyrical content is impressionistic and abstract, conforming more to alliterative and phonetic rules than representational rhyme. That he forces the words to bend to the melody sounds good, giving the songs their relentless driving rhythm, but it makes for difficult listening if comprehension is your goal. It’s the most rewarding if you can sit down and read along with the lyrics as you listen to Dewey deliver them. Unfortunately, the CD doesn’t provide the lyrics, and while it’s to the band’s credit that they are offered on the Playwrights’ website, it further limits the ability to enjoy the full impact of the songs.
But this is contemplative music, not meant to be easily digested or hummed along to on the dance floor. English Self Storage rewards careful attention and repeated listens, catchy as much for what you have to listen for as any band’s incessantly sticky melody. There are plenty of hooks to sink into your brain, but they’re far from simple.
The other minor complaint is that the otherwise excellent “21st Century Kaspar Hauser” feels like an inadequate closer, and even at 36 minutes in total length these eight songs just don’t feel like enough. True, the Playwrights identify English Self Storage as a mere mini-album, and yes, it’s enough encouragement to make you want to visit their previous releases, but the band also claims that the line-up and sound the coalesced here is the best example of the Playwrights vision, and who wants to take a step back and down? So, sure, you can only hope that this means there’s a full-fledged full-length in the offing, but for now, if you’re looking for the next great post-punk release for 2006, or you’re looking for the map to move British indie out of the retro rut and into a more expansive sound, inexplicably, paradoxically, you can find it in the same place in English Self Storage.